When I read a quote from Shame by Melanie Finn on Elizabeth Preston’s and Simon Savidge‘s Twitter feeds, I knew I had to get my hands on it. After some research I found out that the book had been published last year and that the team behind it thought it was one of the best things they had ever published. Thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicholson for the review copy.
The first pages of Shame describe how the main character, Pilgrim Jones, sees a small gesture between her husband and an unknown woman in a meeting in Switzerland. It was something small, maybe a smile, maybe the way they were too close, but Pilgrim knows there is more there. Fast forward ten months and her husband has left her for Elise, who is now pregnant with their child, and Pilgrim has been left to live in a small Swiss village where she no longer feels comfortable. Fast forward a few months, and we find Pilgrim travelling through Tanzania, trying to make something of her new life after she did something terrible back in Europe.
Shame is one of the most powerful psychological novels I have ever read. Although I expected the African setting to be one of the main characters, Finn – who has been living in Africa most of her life – has managed to normalise it, yet she has included magic and religious traditions that will still make the narrative exotic. What we experience when reading Shame is Pilgrim’s own feelings with loss at its core, and the dread of the mundane and everyday life that comes from the grieving process. But, Pilgrim is not just mourning her marriage, she is also trying to hold herself accountable for what she did. Is there shame on it? Did grieve make her do it? How is she supposed to feel? I especially enjoyed the interrogation of how one is supposed to feel in those hard, crucial moments in life.
However, I had one big problem with Shame: it tells more than Pilgrim’s story. Although the first half is completely devoted to her, the second half tells the stories of the people she has been meeting during her journey. Among them is a female African doctor who has to do with almost no medicines, and who can only see her patients die while she holds their hands. Among them is also the detective investigating what happened to her in Switzerland, so that part of the second half of the novel feels like a crime fiction book:
Detail established the truth. The colour of the dog. Without detail, truth was a metaphysically unstable idea: too general, too big; cause and effect going all the way back to first dates, to ancestors surviving winter storms, to dinosaurs, to organisms in a puddle.
All of the other characters are also in Africa, and al of them are secondary characters during Pilgrim’s narrative, but Finn gives them the space to find their own voices and tell their stories. I think what Finn wanted to do was to show that everyone has a story, no matter their nationality, no matter their ethnicity. Grieve can be all-consuming and isolating, but also selfish. Pilgrim is trying to find her new identity as a young, American, divorced woman, but so are other characters.
Shame is a complex psychological novel that explores grief and self-understanding in a unique way. The text, haunting and suffocating, reminds the reader that feelings may be contextual, but are above all personal. We do not have to feel shame just because we feel we should. And that’s fine.
The journey is all, the end is nothing.